April 13, 2019

Bravo for Bartók

One of Tomoko’s favorite composers to perform is Bela Bartók. In her CD “Touria” (available from Amazon), Bartók is the featured composers, showcasing six Rumanian folk dances frp, 1915, seventeen Hungarian and Slovak folk melodies, and “Allegro Barbaro” (1911).

Like Tomoko’s husband Desi, Bartók was born in Hungary (although Bartók’s town came under Romanian rule later on).  And like Desi, Bartók fled his country for America during war times. In Bartók’s case, his anti-Nazi sentiments endangered him. Nevertheless, Bartók always maintained a Hungarian spirit and sense of nationalism.

Bartók showed early musical talent, and gave his first public piano recital at age 11 in 1892 with his own composition, written two years earlier. Among his teachers was a pupil of Hungarian Franz Liszt. Later he was influenced by Richard Strauss and French composer Claude Debussy. In turn, Bartók taught Lili Kraus, one of Tomoko’s professional friends. 

Bartók’s compositions often built on folk music, particularly Rumanian folk dances. Bartók was not only a composer but also an ethnomusicologist, collecting and researching traditional Magyar folk melodies just as nationalism was blooming. Tomoko points out, “The folk inspiration fostered music that came from the heart, and yet how the composers built upon that folk music helped them express their own individuality.”

Bartók played “Allegro Barbaro” privately ten years before the published version of this short dance-like piece was performed publicly in 1921. Each of his pre-published performance was unique, changing speed as well as accents and dynamics. The piece’s title translates into “brisk barbarian”, which was an ironic reference to critics’ labelling of Bartók and his colleagues as young barbarians. Interestingly, the piece was based on Ravel’s “Scarbo.” The final rendition offers a unique counterbalancing of French and Hungarian folk melodies. The tonal pitch is constant, but the major, major and modal relations around it change. “Allegro Barbaro” has two themes, alternating between F# and F. The cadences are surprising, jagged, irregular but they still have chromatic motion. Even this this piece was written relatively early in his career, his compositional style was already mature.

It is no wonder that Tomoko appreciates Bartók: he brings cultural understanding to create an original compelling sound.  And Tomoko brings her own performance gifts to provide a unique experience for her own listeners.

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